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This webpage reproduces part of the
De Officiis


published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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(Vol. XXI) Cicero
De Officiis

p269 p269 Book III
The Conflict between the Right and the Expedient

p271 1 1 Cato, who was of about the same years, Marcus, my son, as that Publius Scipio who first bore the surname of Africanus, has given us the statement that Scipio used to say that he was never less idle than when he had nothing to do and never less lonely than when he was alone. An admirable sentiment, in truth, and becoming to a great and wise man. It shows that even in his leisure hours his thoughts were occupied with public business and that he used to commune with himself when alone; and so not only was he never unoccupied, but he sometimes had no need for company. The two conditions, then, that prompt others to idleness — leisure and solitude — only spurred him on. I wish I could say the same of myself and say it truly. But if by imitation I cannot attain to such excellence of character, in aspiration, at all events, I approach it as nearly as I can; for as I am kept by force of armed treason away from practical politics and from my practice at the bar, I am now leading a life of leisure. For that reason I have left the city and, wandering in the country from place to place, I am often alone.

2 But I should not compare this leisure of mine with that of Africanus, nor this solitude with his. For he, to find leisure from his splendid services to his country, used to take a vacation now and then and to retreat from the assemblies and the throngs of men into solitude, as, into a haven of rest. But p273my leisure is forced upon me by want of public business, not prompted by any desire for repose. For now that the senate has been abolished and the courts have been closed, what is there, in keeping with my self-respect, that I can do either in the senate chamber or in the forum? 3 So, although I once lived amid throngs of people and in the greatest publicity, I am now shunning the sight of the miscreants with whom the world abounds and withdrawing from the public eye as far as I may, and I am often alone. But I have learned from philosophers that among evils one ought not only to choose the least, but also to extract even from these any element of good that they may contain. For that reason, I am turning my leisure to account — though it is not such repose as the man should be entitled to who once brought the state repose from civil strife — and I am not letting this solitude, which necessity and not my will imposes on me, find me idle.

4 And yet, in my judgment, Africanus earned the higher praise. For no literary monuments of his genius have been published, we have no work produced in his leisure hours, no product of his solitude. From this fact we may safely infer that, because of the activity of his mind and the study of those problems to which he used to direct his thought, he was never unoccupied, never lonely. But I have not strength of mind enough by means of silent meditation to forget my solitude; and so I have turned all my attention and endeavour to this kind of literary work. I have, accordingly, written more in this short time since the downfall of the republic than I did in the course of many years, while the republic stood.

p275 2 5 But, my dear Cicero, while the whole field of philosophy is fertile and productive and no portion of it barren and waste, still no part is richer or more fruitful than that which deals with moral duties; for from these are derived the rules for leading a consistent and moral life. And therefore, although you are, as I trust, diligently studying and profiting by these precepts under the direction of our friend Cratippus, the foremost philosopher of the present age, I still think it well that your ears should be dinned with such precepts from every side and that if it could be, they should hear nothing else. 6 These precepts must be laid to heart by all who look forward to a career of honour, and I am inclined to think that no one needs them more than you. For you will have to fulfil the eager anticipation that you will imitate my industry, the confident expectation that you will emulate my course of political honours, and the hope that you will, perhaps, rival my name and fame. You have, besides, incurred a heavy responsibility on account of Athens and Cratippus: for, since you have come to them for the purchase, as it were, of a store of liberal culture, it would be a great discredit to you to return empty-handed, thereby disgracing the high reputation of the city and of your master. Therefore, put forth the best mental effort of which you are capable; work as hard as you can (if learning is work rather than pleasure); do your very best to succeed; and do not, when I have put all the necessary means at your disposal, allow it to be said that you have failed to do your part.

But enough of this. For I have written again and again for your encouragement. Let us now p277return to the remaining section of our subject as outlined.

7 Panaetius, then, has given us what is unquestionably the most thorough discussion of moral duties that we have, and I have followed him in the main — but with slight modifications. He classifies under three general heads the ethical problems which people are accustomed to consider and weigh: first, the question whether the matter in hand is morally right or morally wrong; second, whether it is expedient or inexpedient; third, how a decision ought to be reached, in case that which has the appearance of being morally right clashes with that which seems to be expedient. He has treated the first two heads at length in three books; but, while he has stated that he meant to discuss the third head in its proper turn, he has never fulfilled his promise. 8 And I wonder the more at this, because Posidonius, a pupil of his, records that Panaetius was still alive thirty years after he published those three books. And I am surprised that Posidonius has but briefly touched upon this subject in certain memoirs of his, and especially, as he states that there is no other topic in the whole range of philosophy so essentially important as this.

9 Now, I cannot possibly accept the view of those who say that that point was not overlooked but purposely omitted by Panaetius, and that it was not one that ever needed discussion, because there never can be such a thing as a conflict between expediency and moral rectitude. But with regard to this assertion, the one point may admit of doubt — whether that question which is third in Panaetius's classification ought to have been included or omitted altogether; p279but the other point is not open to debate — that it was included in Panaetius's plan but left unwritten. For, if a writer has finished two divisions of a threefold subject, the third must necessarily remain for him to do. Besides, he promises at the close of the third book that he will discuss this division also in its proper turn. 10 We have also in Posidonius a competent witness to the fact. He writes in one of his letters that Publius Rutilius Rufus, who also was a pupil of Panaetius's, used to say that "as no painter had been found to complete that part of the Venus of Cos which Apelles had left unfinished (for the beauty of her face made hopeless any attempt adequately to represent the rest of the figure), so no one, because of the surpassing excellence of what Panaetius did complete, would venture to supply what he had left undone."

3 11 In regard to Panaetius's real intentions, therefore, no doubt can be entertained. But whether he was or was not justified in adding this third division to the inquiry about duty may, perhaps, be a matter for debate. For whether moral goodness is the only good, as the Stoics believe, or whether, as your Peripatetics think, moral goodness is in so far the highest good that everything else gathered together into the opposing scale would have scarcely the slightest weight, it is beyond question that expediency can never conflict with moral rectitude. And so, we have heard, Socrates used to pronounce a curse upon those who first drew a conceptual distinction between things naturally inseparable. With this doctrine the Stoics are in agreement in so far as they maintain that if anything is morally right, it is p281expedient, and if anything is not morally right, it is not expedient.

12 But if Panaetius were the sort of man to say that virtue is worth cultivating only because it is productive of advantage, as do certain philosophers who measure the desirableness of things by the standard of pleasure or of absence of pain, he might argue that expediency sometimes clashes with moral rectitude. But since he is a man who judges that the morally right is the only good, and that those things which come in conflict with it have only the appearance of expediency and cannot make life any better by their presence nor any worse by their absence, it follows that he ought not to have raised a question involving the weighing of what seems expedient against what is morally right. 13 Furthermore, when the Stoics speak of the supreme good as "living conformably to Nature," they mean, as I take it, something like this: that we are always to be in accord with virtue, and from all other things that may be in harmony with Nature to choose only such as are not incompatible with virtue. This being so, some people are of the opinion that it was not right to introduce this counterbalancing of right and expediency and that no practical instruction should have been given on this question at all.

And yet moral goodness, in the true and proper sense of the term, is the exclusive possession of the wise and can never be separated from virtue; but those who have not perfect wisdom cannot possibly have perfect moral goodness, but only a semblance of it. 14 And indeed these duties under discussion in these books the Stoics call "mean duties";1 they are a common possession and have wide application; and p283many people attain to the knowledge of them through natural goodness of heart and through advancement in learning. But that duty which those same Stoics call "right" is perfect and absolute and "satisfies all the numbers,"2 as that same school says, and is attainable by none except the wise man. 15 On the other hand, when some act is performed in which we see "mean" duties manifested, that is generally regarded as fully perfect, for the reason that the common crowd does not, as a rule, comprehend how far it falls short of real perfection; but, as far as their comprehension does go, they think there is no deficiency. This same thing ordinarily occurs in the estimation of poems, paintings, and a great many other works of art: ordinary people enjoy and praise things that do not deserve praise. The reason for this, I suppose, is that those productions have some point of excellence which catches the fancy of the uneducated, because these have not the ability to discover the points of weakness in any particular piece of work before them. And so, when they are instructed by experts, they readily abandon their former opinion.

4 The performance of the duties, then, which I am discussing in these books, is called by the Stoics a sort of second-grade moral goodness, not the peculiar property of their wise men, but shared by them with all mankind. 16 Accordingly, such duties appeal to all men who have a natural disposition to virtue. And when the two Decii or the two Scipios are mentioned as "brave men" or Fabricius is called "the just," it is not at all that the former are quoted as perfect models of courage or the latter as a perfect model of justice, as if we had in one of them the ideal "wise man." For no one of them was wise in p285the sense in which we wish to have "wise" understood; neither were Marcus Cato and Gaius Laelius wise, though they were so considered and were surnamed "the wise." Not even the famous Seven were "wise." But because of their constant observance of "mean" duties they bore a certain semblance and likeness to wise men.

17 For these reasons it is unlawful either to weigh true morality against conflicting expediency, or common morality, which is cultivated by those who wish to be considered good men, against what is profitable; but we every-day people must observe and live up to that moral right which comes within the range of our comprehension as jealously as the truly wise men have to observe and live up to that which is morally right in the technical and true sense of the word. For otherwise we cannot maintain such progress as we have made in the direction of virtue.

So much for those who have won a reputation for being good men by their careful observance of duty.

18 Those, on the other hand, who measure everything by a standard of profits and personal advantage and refuse to have these outweighed by considerations of moral rectitude are accustomed, in considering any question, to weigh the morally right against what they think the expedient; good men are not. And so I believe that when Panaetius stated that people were accustomed to hesitate to do such weighing, he meant precisely what he said — merely that "such was their custom," not that such was their duty. And he gave it no approval; for it is most immoral to think more highly of the apparently expedient than of the morally right, or even to set p287these over against each other and to hesitate to choose between them.

What, then, is it that may sometimes give room for a doubt and seem to call for consideration? It is, I believe, when a question arises as to the character of an action under consideration. 19 For it often happens, owing to exceptional circumstances, that what is accustomed under ordinary circumstances to be considered morally wrong is found not to be morally wrong. For the sake of illustration, let us assume some particular case that admits of wider application — what more atrocious crime can there be than to kill a fellow-man, and especially an intimate friend? But if anyone kills a tyrant — be he never so intimate a friend — he has not laden his soul with guilt, has he? The Roman People, at all events, are not of that opinion; for of all glorious deeds they hold such an one to be the most noble. Has expediency, then, prevailed over moral rectitude? Not at all; moral rectitude has gone hand in hand with expediency.

Some general rule, therefore, should be laid down to enable us to decide without error, whenever what we call the expedient seems to clash with what we feel to be morally right; and, if we follow that rule in comparing courses of conduct, we shall never swerve from the path of duty. 20 That rule, moreover, shall be in perfect harmony with the Stoics' system and doctrines. It is their teachings that I am following in these books, and for this reason: the older Academicians and your Peripatetics (who were once the same as the Academicians) give what is morally right the preference over what seems expedient; and yet the discussion of p289these problems, if conducted by those who consider whatever is morally right also expedient and nothing expedient that is not at the same time morally right, will be more illuminating than if conducted by those who think that something not expedient may be morally right and that something not morally right may be expedient. But our New Academy allows us wide liberty, so that it is within my right to defend any theory that presents itself to me as most probable. But to return to my rule.

5 21 Well then, for a man to take something from his neighbour and to profit by his neighbour's loss is more contrary to Nature than is death or poverty or pain or anything else that can affect either our person or our property. For, in the first place, injustice is fatal to social life and fellowship between man and man. For, if we are so disposed that each, to gain some personal profit, will defraud or injure his neighbour, then those bonds of human society, which are most in accord with Nature's laws, must of necessity be broken. 22 Suppose, by way of comparison, that each one of our bodily members should conceive this idea and imagine that it could be strong and well if it should draw off to itself the health and strength of its neighbouring member, the whole body would necessarily be enfeebled and die; so, if each one of us should seize upon the property of his neighbours and take from each whatever he could appropriate to his own use, the bonds of human society must inevitably be annihilated. For, without any conflict with Nature's laws, it is granted that everybody may prefer to secure for himself rather than for his neighbour what is essential for the conduct of life; but Nature's laws do forbid us to increase p291our means, wealth, and resources by despoiling others.

23 But this principle is established not by Nature's laws alone (that is, by the common rules of equity), but also by the statutes of particular communities, in accordance with which in individual states the public interests are maintained. In all these it is with one accord ordained that no man shall be allowed for the sake of his own advantage to injure his neighbour. For it is to this that the laws have regard; this is their intent, that the bonds of union between citizens should not be impaired; and any attempt to destroy these bonds is repressed by the penalty of death, exile, imprisonment, or fine.

Again, this principle follows much more effectually directly from the Reason which is in Nature, which is the law of gods and men. If anyone will hearken to that voice (and all will hearken to it who wish to live in accord with Nature's laws), he will never be guilty of coveting anything that is his neighbour's or of appropriating to himself what he has taken from his neighbour. 24 Then, too, loftiness and greatness of spirit, and courtesy, justice, and generosity are much more in harmony with Nature than are selfish pleasure, riches, and life itself; but it requires a great and lofty spirit to despise these latter and count them as naught, when one weighs them over against the common weal. [But for anyone to rob his neighbour for his own profit is more contrary to Nature than death, pain, and the like.]

25 In like manner it is more in accord with Nature to emulate the great Hercules and undergo the greatest toil and trouble for the sake of aiding or saving the world, if possible, than to live in seclusion, p293not only free from all care, but revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth, while excelling others also in beauty and strength. Thus Hercules denied himself and underwent toil and tribulation for the world, and, out of gratitude for his services, popular belief has given him a place in the council of the gods.

The better and more noble, therefore, the character with which a man is endowed, the more does he prefer the life of service to the life of pleasure. Whence it follows that man, if he is obedient to Nature, cannot do harm to his fellow-man.

26 Finally, if a man wrongs his neighbour to gain some advantage for himself he must either imagine that he is not acting in defiance of Nature or he must believe that death, poverty, pain, or even the loss of children, kinsmen, or friends, is more to be shunned than an act of injustice against another. If he thinks he is not violating the laws of Nature, when he wrongs his fellow-men, how is one to argue with the individual who takes away from man all that makes him man? But if he believes that, while such a course should be avoided, the other alternatives are much worse — namely, death, poverty, pain — he is mistaken in thinking that any ills affecting either his person or his property are more serious than those affecting his soul.

6 This, then, ought to be the chief end of all men, to make the interest of each individual and of the whole body politic identical. For, if the individual appropriates to selfish ends what should be devoted to the common good, all human fellowship will be destroyed.

27 And further, if Nature ordains that one man shall p295desire to promote the interests of a fellow-man, whoever he may be, just because he is a fellow-man, then it follows, in accordance with that same Nature, that there are interests that all men have in common. And, if this is true, we are all subject to one and the same law of Nature; and, if this also is true, we are certainly forbidden by Nature's law to wrong our neighbour. Now the first assumption is true; therefore the conclusion is likewise true. 28 For that is an absurd position which is taken by some people, who say that they will not rob a parent or a brother for their own gain, but that their relation to the rest of their fellow-citizens is quite another thing. Such people contend in essence that they are bound to their fellow-citizens by no mutual obligations, social ties, or common interests. This attitude demolishes the whole structure of civil society.

Others again who say that regard should be had for the rights of fellow-citizens, but not of foreigners, would destroy the universal brotherhood of mankind; and, when this is annihilated, kindness, generosity, goodness, and justice must utterly perish; and those who work all this destruction must be considered as wickedly rebelling against the immortal gods. For they uproot the fellowship which the gods have established between human beings, and the closest bond of this fellowship is the conviction that it is more repugnant to Nature for man to rob a fellow-man for his own gain than to endure all possible loss, whether to his property or to his person . . . or even to his very soul — so far as these losses are not concerned with justice;3 for this virtue is the sovereign mistress and queen of all the virtues.

p297 29 But, perhaps, someone may say: "Well, then, suppose a wise man were starving to death, might he not take the bread of some perfectly useless member of society?" [Not at all; for my life is not more precious to me than that temper of soul which would keep me from doing wrong to anybody for my own advantage.] "Or again; supposing a righteous man were in a position to rob the cruel and inhuman tyrant Phalaris of clothing, might he not do it to keep himself from freezing to death?"

30 These cases are very easy to decide. For, if merely for one's own benefit one were to take something away from a man, though he were a perfectly worthless fellow, it would be an act of meanness and contrary to Nature's law. But suppose one would be able, by remaining alive, to render signal service to the state and to human society — if from that motive one should take something from another, it would not be a matter for censure. But, if such is not the case, each one must bear his own burden of distress rather than rob a neighbour of his rights. We are not to say, therefore, that sickness or want or any evil of that sort is more repugnant to Nature than to covet and to appropriate what is one's neighbour's; but we do maintain that disregard of the common interests is repugnant to Nature; for it is unjust. 31 And therefore Nature's law itself, which protects and conserves human interests, will surely determine that a man who is wise, good, and brave, should in emergency have the necessaries of life transferred to him from a person who is idle and worthless; for the good man's death would be a heavy loss to the common weal; only let him beware that self-esteem and self-love do not find in such a transfer of possessions p299a pretext for wrong-doing. But, thus guided in his decision, the good man will always perform his duty, promoting the general interests of human society on which I am so fond of dwelling.

32 As for the case of Phalaris, a decision is quite simple: we have no ties of fellowship with a tyrant, but rather the bitterest feud; and it is not opposed to Nature to rob, if one can, a man whom it is morally right to kill; — nay, all that pestilent and abominable race should be exterminated from human society. And this may be done by proper measures; for, as certain members are amputated, if they show signs themselves of being bloodless and virtually lifeless and thus jeopardize the health of the other parts of the body, so those fierce and savage monsters in human form should be cut off from what may be called the common body of humanity.

Of this sort are all those problems in which we have to determine what moral duty is, as it varies with varying circumstances.

7 33 It is subjects of this sort that I believe Panaetius would have followed up, had not some accident or business interfered with his design. For the elucidation of these very questions there are in his former books rules in plenty, from which one can learn what should be avoided because of its immorality and what does not have to be avoided for the reason that it is not immoral at all.

We are now putting the capstone, as it were, upon our structure, which is unfinished, to be sure, but still almost completed; and, as mathematicians make a practice of not demonstrating every proposition, but require that certain axioms be assumed as true, in order more easily to explain their meaning, so, my p301dear Cicero, I ask you to assume with me, if you can, that nothing is worth the seeking for its own sake except what is morally right. But if Cratippus4 does not permit this assumption, you will still grant this at least — that what is morally right is the object most worth the seeking for its own sake. Either alternative is sufficient for my purposes; first the one and then the other seems to me the more probable, and, besides these, there is no other alternative that seems probable at all.5

34 In the first place, I must undertake the defence of Panaetius on this point; for he has said, not that the truly expedient could under certain circumstances clash with the morally right (for he could not have said that conscientiously),6 but only that what seemed expedient could do so. For he often bears witness to the fact that nothing is really expedient that is not at the same time morally right, and nothing morally right that is not at the same time expedient; and he says that no greater curse has ever assailed human life than the doctrine of those who have separated these two conceptions. And so he introduced an apparent, not a real, conflict between them, not to the end that we should under certain circumstances give the expedient preference over the moral, but that, in case they ever should get in each other's way, we might decide between them without uncertainty. This part, therefore, which was passed over by Panaetius, I will carry to completion without any auxiliaries, but fighting my own battle, as the saying is. For, of all that has been worked out on this line since the time of Panaetius, nothing that has come into my hands is at all satisfactory to me.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 See Note on I.8.

2 I.e., fills all the requirements of absolute perfection — an allusion to the Pythagorean doctrine that specific numbers stand for perfection of specific kinds; "absolute duty" combines them all.

3 I.e., there are no circumstances of loss or gain that can warrant a violation of justice.

4 As a Peripatetic, Cratippus insisted that there was natural good as well as moral good; thus health, honour, etc., were good and worth seeking for their own sake, though in less degree than virtue. But the Stoics (and Cicero is now speaking as a Stoic) called all those other blessings not "good" nor "worth seeking for their own sake," but "indifferent."

5 With this he waves aside, without even the honour of mentioning them, the Epicureans, Cyrenaics, etc.

6 Because he was a Stoic.

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